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Thursday, March 31, 2005

Year's end

Today is the end of Harlow Council's financial year. Several staff are leaving today, and of course it's the day several council premises close their doors as a result of the budget decisions we've had to make.

It's also the day the council's agency agreement with Essex County Council comes to a conclusion, so from now on responsibility for roads and pavements falls four-square with the county council. It's inevitable that the dreadful state of Harlow's roads, under-funded for years by the county council, but slashed by 30 per cent by the present Conservative administration in charge at County Hall, will be a major election issue in the next four weeks of the campaign.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Today's recipe: Liberal Democrat a la pluie

Take one plump round Liberal Democrat, and cover in a fresh cagoule. Garnish with one carrier bag generously stuffed with addressed NHS Study forms. Drizzle continuously all round Manor Hatch Close and Spencers Croft, until soaked through and wilted. Serves about 230.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Going postal

The local Liberal Democrat campaign team meets this evening, to confirm our schedule for the final few weeks of the election campaign.

One of the most significant changes in how elections work over the last few years has been the rise in the number of people voting by post. When I first became involved in politics, an application to vote by post was a rarity; it required a doctor's certificate pretty much saying that you were unable to get to a polling station. In 2000, the Government changed the law to make postal votes available on demand. The result - greater choice and flexibility for voters (good), but also a hugely increased risk of election fraud, sometimes with people being conned or forced out of their blank postal ballots which are then taken away and completed in bulk by organised groups.

Occasionally this sort of fraud hits the headlines - as it has done in Birmingham, where a high-profile case is being heard by Judge Richard Mawrey QC into allegations against Labour in a couple of key council wards. Meanwhile, police are apparently investigating election fraud allegations in Cheshire, Derbyshire, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire and Woking - and it appears that a former Labour councillor in Blackburn has admitted conspiracy over the 2002 local elections there.

Against this backdrop, it's perhaps somewhat alarming that a number of parliamentary constituencies are seeing massive rises in the numbers of people applying to vote by post this time. It's got to the stage where a Liberal Democrat peer has even suggested we ought to have international observers to oversee our elections, as they do in the newly emerging democracies overseas. I'm not sure I'd go that far, but it certainly seems to me that there's a need for better systems to detect and combat election fraud.

All that having been said, I'll be voting by post again on 5 May. And if anyone else wants to apply for a postal vote for their own use in the forthcoming elections, the Electoral Commission publishes an online form to print out, complete and post back.

Monday, March 28, 2005


Today I'm called on by our deputy agent, asking me to sign nomination papers for the Liberal Democrat candidates for May's county council elections. Less than six weeks to polling day!

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Easter Sunday

The house is awash with chocolate, in all possible shapes and sizes. To work off some of the excess calories, I mount a determined assault on the housework, much neglected for most of the year. There's enough dog hair on the bedroom floor to build a spare dog, and all sorts of objects I'd forgotten I owned come to light when I grub out the bottom of the wardrobe. It's probably the last chance I'll get to tidy anything around the house till the second week of May, so I'd better make the most of it.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

It never rains ...

Out with the team delivering more NHS Study surveys to residents in my own ward today, in Barleycroft, Peterswood, Risdens and Woodhill. It's a fine day, so I'm out in just my Lib Dem yellow polo shirt and jeans. As I cycle to Bush Fair for a drink afterwards, I see the Tory parliamentary candidate outside the Latton Bush Centre. The pub proves - to say the least - less child-friendly than we'd hoped, so we move off to the cafe in the shopping centre; and on the way we see the Tory parliamentary candidate again. This time he's looking rather forlorn with a Conservative councillor by his side, trying to hand out leaflets to passers-by who seem far from interested. I get absolutely drenched in the downpour as I cycle from Bush Fair to the Water Gardens, where I pick up last-minute Easter eggs and chocolate for the family at Thorntons - and a cagoule from Millets!

Friday, March 25, 2005


The General Election campaign hasn't even got fully under way yet, and already Conservative candidates are falling like ninepins.

The unfortunate remarks of the then Tory candidate for Tony Blair's Sedgefield seat ended in his resignation, as my diary entry of 15 March reported. Two Tory parliamentary candidates for Slough have had to resign in quick succession after some rather embarrassing gaffes. The Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire has stepped down "for health reasons" after allegations about his conduct, a report from the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee, and an attempt by his local party to deselect him.

And today it's the turn of Conservative MP Howard Flight, stepping down as the party's deputy chairman after a tape of one of his speeches was released, which revealed that the Conservatives' intentions to slash public services to ribbons went well beyond the partial story told in their manifesto.

I mean, how hard is it for the Conservatives to tell the truth about their policies and spending plans? Are you thinking what we're thinking?

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Passmores House

Cllr Roy Collyer, who normally chairs the council's Policy & Resources Committee, is unwell, so it's down to me as Vice Chair.

The first major item - after apologies for absence, declarations of interest and so forth - is to consider the two bids we've received to take on the lease of Passmores House, an attractive if under-maintained historic listed building in its own grounds in the middle of Harlow. (Stroll through the gardens - as members of the public are entitled to do - and you'd never guess you were only a hundred yards or so from Matalan, TK Maxx and the hustle and bustle of the Water Gardens).

The political history of this premises has been, to say the least, chequered. It was neglected by the old council, who transferred the museum contents from the house to the new Museum of Harlow about five years ago and then left it standing because they didn't know what to do with it.

Under the chairmanship of Conservative councillor Simon Carter, after Labour lost power in 2002, the Tories were so desperate to sell it off to the highest bidder as a private dwelling that their public statements started tripping over each other -
at one stage he claimed the sale was only a proposal despite the fact that the building was on the market
reported the Harlow Star at the time. The whole sorry saga resulted in a reference of Cllr Carter to the Standards Board, a motion of no confidence in him passed by the council, his refusal to resign, and the ending of the agreement between the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives to share the running of the council.

Since the Conservatives lost power, the Council has moved forward a long way with Passmores House. We have two good bids on the table tonight: one from Vale House, an organisation supporting people who have previously been addicted; the other from HEMCA, the Herts & Essex Muslim Cultural Association.

As chair of the meeting, I have a difficult problem to overcome. I want the council to be as open as possible about a matter of significant public interest; however, we can't really hold the whole meeting in public if it involves the council's negotiations with bidders. So we do the best we can. Each bidder has agreed to give their presentation in public; I ask each bidder in turn to leave the room so that they don't hear each other's presentations, and councillors aren't permitted to ask questions in public. Then I exclude the press and public, call representatives of each bidder in turn to come into the closed meeting and answer our questions. We then discuss the bids and make a decision. I call everybody back in, and in public session I announce our conclusion. Vale House is our preferred bidder, but we will agree a reasonable time limit for negotiations with them, and if we can't reach agreement in that time we'll start talking to the Muslim Cultural Association.

Obviously it's a situation in which one bidder is bound to feel disappointed. But everybody seems to take it well - they shake hands with each other, and leave us to another hour's worth of business. All in all, I think making the decision as openly as we can has turned what was a rather shabby cause celebre into a potential success story.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pensioner power

There's a feeling that the General Election, widely tipped for 5 May, really is getting under way. This afternoon is the first meeting where representatives of the three main parties - myself, the Labour MP, and the Tory candidate - share a platform and answer residents' questions.

The meeting has been organised by the local Pensioners' Action group, and takes place in St Paul's Church Hall. Tory candidate Robert Halfon gets off to a flying start by spilling his glass of water all over the table in front of him, and is lent a cloth to mop it up. He's first to speak, and when he chooses to leave his chair and sit on the table right in front of me, I move my own water glass away very swiftly indeed.

The main topics of interest are pensions, health and transport. We've all got different things to say, Labour MP Bill Rammell bearing the brunt of the questions from pensioners fed up with the deal they've had from the Labour government. I explain Liberal Democrat proposals for a decent Citizens' Pension for all, based on residency and not on National Insurance contributions - and an extra £100 per month for single pensioners over 75 (£140 for a couple), to be extended gradually to younger pensioners and linked to earnings.

Many women have been left with very little pension entitlement because they've not had a consistent history of NI contributions, through taking time out to raise a family or take on voluntary activities in the community. There's a lively discussion about how the impact of opting to pay the married women's stamp wasn't explained to them, and how they feel mis-advised and misled.

What with that, the way the Tory government in the 1990s mishandled SERPS, and the collapse of some of the occupational pension schemes, pensions have become a major political issue these days. And with more and more older people as the balance of population shifts, and the greater tendency of senior citizens to vote, woe betide any politician who doesn't take the views of pensioners very seriously indeed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005


This evening I'm representing a resident in my ward who has submitted a complaint against the housing company that now owns the estate. One of the most significant changes since I became a councillor in 1991 has been the rise of housing associations, housing companies and different forms of housing tenure. Housing has certainly become a lot more complex since the days when there were 24,000 council homes in Harlow - now there are fewer than 11,000. We're told we'll hear the outcome of the complaint hearing in ten working days.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Leading by example

I missed most of Jamie Oliver's series on school dinners - I saw only part of the last programme - but it certainly seems to have panicked Tony Blair's Government. They've rushed out a mini-manifesto including setting up some sort of school meals Trust, and hawked education minister Ruth Kelly from studio to studio to tell us that despite having taken no action for eight years, Labour cares very much about school dinners, honestly. Jamie's school dinners campaign, including a petition, campaign pack and recipes, is now online. Over breakfast this morning I was watching The Wright Stuff on Five - they were running a phone poll on who should be running the country, Tony Blair or Jamie Oliver. Last time I looked, Jamie was leading by 88 per cent to 12 per cent.

Meanwhile, I'm absolutely shocked at the picture coverage given to Kylie Minogue in the much-heralded corset for her latest stage show. It gives her a completely abnormal 16 inch waist. What message is that going to send to the thousands of young girls on the edge of anorexia?

Finally, no account of today's news would be complete without reference to that truly dreadful picture of the 1,500 people who queued for a place on the list of a new dentist in Spalding, Lincolnshire. What state has our National Health Service come to that this sort of sight is possible in 21st century Britain?

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Massive response

I spend a fair amount of time today signing letters thanking residents who have replied to my recent Health Study. Replies are already flooding in, despite the fact that a large number of survey forms haven't been delivered yet. There's a lot of useful information coming back on local GP and hospital care, and views on issues such as mixed sex wards and charges for eye tests and prescriptions.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

In conference

The doors to the Harlow 2020 Conference at Harlow College open at 09:30, and I'm there early. I catch up with quite a few people over coffee and then join the top table to 'do my bit' - reporting back on environmental issues (recycling, and the local and regional plans), health and the arts in Harlow.

The agenda lists Tory councillor and 'young turk' JP Goddard standing in for his Conservative group leader Andrew Johnson (yet again), so there's quite a stir of surprise when the said leader himself turns up at the event. JP looks almost crestfallen.

The workshops are enjoyable and lively; I attend one on health and one on 'free time' including sport and the arts. Both are well facilitated, and people are keen to chip in and have their say.

After it's all over, I head off to Bush Fair, where I'm due at a campaign review meeting with colleagues over lunch and a couple of drinks.

Friday, March 18, 2005

A damp squid

The Regional Assembly chooses to meet in some far-flung places, and today it's the wrong side of Cambridge, miles from the railway station. I'm late for the 09:30 Lib Dem Regional Group meeting, because if you don't get the 08:06 train to Cambridge from Harlow, the next one isn't till 08:51, which is less than impressive timetabling.

It's a special meeting about the East of England Regional Plan. The public consultation exercise finished on Wednesday, and over 26,000 responses have been received.

Thinking back to the Regional Assembly meeting in December - when the Assembly 'suspended its support' for the Plan - and the claims of some politicians in the press since then, anyone would be forgiven for expecting that today's meeting would be all fireworks. Bizarrely, however, peace and harmony seem to have broken out. A motion put forward by one party group has been amended by both the other party groups. All parties agree all the amendments. All parties agree the final motion. And then we all go and have lunch - leaving some of us scratching our heads and asking "What was all that for, then?".

[I know the correct phrase is "a damp squib" - in other words, a wet firework. But I once heard someone who'd misunderstood the expression refer to "a damp squid", which seems appropriate somehow.]

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Investors in People

The Liberal Democrats have just been awarded the Investors in People standard for our London HQ, and today party leader Charles Kennedy receives the award in front of a throng of journalists and cameramen. As I've been part of the team involved in preparing for our Investors in People application as part of my day job, I'm delighted.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Good news and bad news

Gordon Brown's budget contains good news and bad news. The good news is free off-peak local bus travel for pensioners and disabled people - a victory for the Liberal Democrats, as we'd already put this in our top ten priorities. The council tax rebate for pensioners will help a bit too, though not as much as our proposals for a local income tax would have done. And the stamp duty change is also like the curate's egg, good in parts - a small help for some starting out with their first home, but at £120,000 it won't make a difference to the average first time buyer whose purchase will be about £130,000.

But the bad news is what's missing. No end to tuition fees and top-up fees for students; no fundamental change to the unfair council tax; no free personal care for the elderly; no significant boost for pensions for the over-75s; and no commitment to scrap ID cards in favour of more police on the beat.

All in all, what may be Labour's last budget for quite a while is a sadly missed opportunity.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Creative destruction

I get back from the (last ever) Staple Tye community partnership meeting, where we've allocated our remaining few thousand pounds to some really good local projects - out of school gymnastics clubs, equipment for the local secondary school to offer dance and drama and movement to the local community, a new allotment site, a web site for a residents association, an activity trail for children with motor problems at a local primary school.

I log on to the BBC News website and read that the Conservative candidate who was due to stand against Tony Blair in the General Election has quit rather spectacularly. Danny Kruger, who works in the Tory research unit, apparently told the Guardian newspaper that
We [the Conservatives] plan to introduce a period of creative destruction in the public services.
What on earth goes on in some people's heads? Is 'creative destruction' really what we have to look forward to if - heaven forbid - Michael Howard were to get his feet under the desk at 10 Downing Street?

Monday, March 14, 2005

Furthering Education

Tonight the Harlow Trust for the Furtherance of Education, which I chair, finally achieves the feat of being able to get enough of its members in a room at the same time to hold an Annual General Meeting. It's taken several attempts to get this far, so this is quite a cause for celebration.

The trust was set up by the old council many years ago with about £120,000 of capital; it gives away about £4,000 a year in grants to applicants, costs about £1,000 a year in administration to do it, and getting its members together for meetings is always an absolute nightmare. It's clearly no way to run a chip shop, and we all agree that the best way forward is to reach an agreement with the Essex Community Foundation to manage the money and help achieve our aims more effectively.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Niagara Falls

Checking my email today, I find a message from the council's interim Director of Housing. On Thursday evening a resident of the Longbanks estate in my ward had called to tell me that water was gushing out 'like Niagara Falls' from under the eaves of an upstairs flat all over his rented garage below. He'd been told by the council that it would take until 31 March for someone to look at the problem.

My fellow councillor Su had also been phoned by another resident who had raised the same issue with the council and been given the same target date of three weeks. We had both separately emailed the Director of Housing on Thursday.

The email I find today tells me that following our involvement, an officer went to the site on Friday and resolved the problem by adjusting the ball valve in the toilet cistern. Why on earth does it require the intervention of two senior councillors and one of the most senior members of the council's paid staff to achieve something this straightforward? Sometimes being a councillor really is like trying to push water uphill with a fork.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Thoroughly grilled

According to the Harlow Star headline the council joint leaders, including myself, were to be 'grilled' today by residents at the public meeting organised about the council's recent budget. And grilled is certainly what it feels like.

By ten o'clock the council chamber is filled almost to capacity with about 170 people - we had been worried about what would have happened if numbers had exceeded the health and safety limit, but our fears turn out to have been groundless.

Despite having voted for the budget and demanded to be involved at every stage of its development, Harlow Tories now appear to have completely ducked out of sharing the responsibility for it. They refuse their seat on the platform, and three Tory councillors sit in the front row of the public seats - as if the difficult decisions we've had to make together were nothing to do with them.

The Labour joint leader and I explain the history behind the budget - the many, many years of council inefficiency that have led us all to the situation we are now in. We explain why we can't raise council tax above the government's cap, and why we can't rely any more on reserves that have long since been spent trying to keep services going that just weren't affordable. We explain how we consulted a representative sample of residents on the options available, and how we decided on the savings we've made.

Most importantly, we explain the process for organisations that are interested in running services from the buildings which will be empty from 31 March. Paul Bird, the council's Head of Regeneration, is issuing information packs to potential bidders, and receiving expressions of interest - and he's there today to assist in answering residents' questions.

The questions and comments come thick and fast, with positive contributions from many speakers, some searching and very valid questions from most - and, sadly, a few inflammatory speeches from a few political extremists that offer no constructive suggestions whatsoever.

The meeting closes at about 12:15, and I'm almost the last to leave, as there are a large number of residents wanting to talk individually, which of course I'm more than happy to do.

It's not surprising that by late afternoon I have to sleep off the exhaustion for an hour. Nick's cooked supper, and I watch Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason (a mother's day present from Tom and Georgina) as a distraction from a tough day, before piling back on to the computer for more politics late into the evening.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Away day

Here in Harlow it may be Friday, but in the Houses of Parliament I gather that parliamentary conventions have declared it to be still Thursday, so that the Government's anti-terrorism legislation can continue to be debated.

So, while I sit in the Swallow Churchgate in Old Harlow for a Harlow 2020 all-day meeting, the parliamentarians are voting on measures designed to put to an end some of this country's basic civil liberties. It's astonishing that Peter Hain - Peter Hain of all people, with his history of struggle against apartheid in South Africa as a young man - could end up as a Government minister proposing house arrest and deprivation of basic freedoms that wouldn't have been out of place in his home country as it was when he left it.

We all know we need to protect our country from terrorism. The difference between Liberal Democrats and Labour however is that Liberal Democrats recognise that we can do that and still retain some of our basic civil liberties.

Liberal Democrat MPs and peers are in the forefront of obtaining a number of key concessions from the Labour government when the bill finally goes through late today. There's now no question of a Home Secretary making a control order without judicial supervision. All control orders will be for a limited period. Prosecution will always be a first option. No house arrest without the Home Secretary putting an order through Parliament. Evidence obtained abroad under torture will be inadmissible. Greater opportunities for suspects to challenge the evidence against them.

Without a strong group of Liberal Democrats in parliament protecting our fundamental freedoms, I shudder to think what New Labour would have been able to turn our country into.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A supplementary question

I think it was the humorist PJ O'Rourke who said
There are four basic food groups - fat, sugar, caffeine and alcohol - and you can get them all in an Irish coffee.
My diet isn't much better when I'm busy - I've barely got time to eat, let alone cook. Today so far I've eaten a hot cross bun, a slice of granary toast and marmite, Georgina's leftover chips from the takeaway at the top of our road, and a couple of chocolate chip cookies. I'm ashamed of myself.

At least I've got some vitamin supplements in my kitchen drawer, though I rarely remember to take them. But from July onwards, I may not even be able to use those, because the Labour Government is implementing a European Union ban on 200 ingredients of vitamin and mineral supplements, affecting over 5,000 such products. It seems crazy, when people have been using these items happily and safely for years; and it's disappointing that the Liberal Democrat opposition to this move, in Europe and at Westminster, hasn't been listened to. There are similar directives applying to medicinal products and traditional remedies.

I've written to Tony Blair to make my views known about this. I even tell the man who comes to read the gas meter this morning, and he points out that it'll be bad for Chinese herbal remedies too. If it ain't broke, why are the EU and the Government trying to fix it?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Dare to be a Daniel

The Playhouse is packed tonight for Harlow's main event in the Essex Book Festival - an audience with Tony Benn. I'm fortunate to have a good seat; the theatre is sold out and as I queue at the box office to pick up my ticket I pass a woman waiting to see if there are any returns. (There is one, and she's overjoyed).

Tony Benn is one of my childhood political heroes. Never one to be pushed into conforming to a party line, he's a real individual, warm and engaging as well as thought provoking and unfailingly positive and optimistic. There are a lot of things I agree with him on - the war in Iraq, the anti-terrorism bill, New Labour's inherent Thatcherism, the importance of good public services in health and education, how ironic it is that even the House of Lords is now more left-wing than the Labour Government - as well as some I don't. It's interesting to feel in the hall the frustration and disappointment of Labour supporters who, like Benn, feel their party has been stolen from them by the right wing currently occupying Downing Street.

I introduce myself to Tony Benn after the meeting as the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate for Harlow; he signs my copy of his book Dare to be a Daniel, shakes my hand and wishes me well.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

2020 Citizens

The most enjoyable part of the day is definitely the middle, when I join David Ellerby, Principal of Harlow College and Ken Morley, chief editor of the Harlow Star, along with the administrator and PR consultant from the Harlow 2020 Partnership, to help choose the Harlow 2020 Citizens.

We have a list of 55 young people, ranging in age from two to nearly 25 years, who have been nominated by schools, families or friends. Their stories are amazing and heartwarming - excellence in sport, dance or drama, service to the community, academic study or overcoming the odds of illness, disability or difficult family circumstances.

The awards are due to be presented on 1 April, and between us we complete the challenging task of whittling the list down to about 24 young people whose achievements we believe deserve this special recognition.

After a difficult couple of weeks, it's good to be able to concentrate on the positive side of life in the Harlow community.

Monday, March 07, 2005

It's been a long day ...

My morning is spent trying to dig my way out of the heap of correspondence and other paperwork that's still building up. I write several more letters about the budget, explaining to people why we've had to make the difficult decisions we have. It's heartening however to hear from organisations interested in running services for the community from the buildings we're having to vacate. The council's Head of Regeneration, Paul Bird, is responsible for receiving these and liaising with interested groups. This should mean there'll be a fair process, the same for everyone; I can't get involved with individual bids at this stage as I may need to consider and vote between different applications once we've received all the expressions of interest.

When one of your meetings starts at 9:00pm, you realise your life isn't as orderly as it should be. I see a constituent at 6:30pm, have a group meeting at 7:30pm, and then join the other two group leaders for a meeting with the local government Improvement & Development Agency, which doesn't conclude until after 11:15pm.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Conference ends

This morning I finally get the chance to tour the remaining exhibition stands at the party's spring conference - a mixture of commercial and campaigning interests and internal party organisations. I've also come with a shopping list of bits and pieces, from balloons to manifestos, and spend far more money than expected.

Council tax, policies for children and health are among the items on the agenda for this morning's debates, with emergency motions on Iraq and the Government's illiberal and excessive proposals contained in the terrorism bill.

The conference ends at lunchtime, with a series of short speeches urging party members, workers and candidates in the hall to make the most of the opportunity offered by the coming General Election campaign. Speakers include Sarah Teather, MP for Brent East (another historic Liberal Democrat by-election victory); Saj Karim, the party's first MEP from a minority ethnic group; and of course, party leader Charles Kennedy himself.

No visit to Harrogate is complete without the obligatory stop at Betty's tea rooms; and no visit to Betty's is complete without the obligatory queue for a table. But lunch is worth the wait, and I can't resist buying some of the tempting goodies in the window on the way out. Then it's on the road back home again. Conference is over and done with until the autumn. How many extra Liberal Democrat MPs will we be welcoming on to the platform then, I wonder?

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Leader's speech

Almost everyone is seated by the time I arrive in the auditorium for the Leader's speech. It's a strong speech, in which Charles Kennedy sets out clearly the issues that divide the Liberal Democrats from the other parties, and the ground on which we'll be campaigning in the General Election. In contrast to the Liberal Democrats' carefully costed manifesto, he dismisses the Conservatives' "candyfloss economics" and their claim that they can cut taxes and reduce the national debt at the same time as increasing spending on public services. We leave the hall in good spirits and confident about the forthcoming eight weeks of campaigning.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Away for the weekend

We set off (slightly late) for Harrogate and the Liberal Democrats' spring conference, arriving just in time to hit the evening rush hour traffic in and out of the town.

My first port of call is the lounge of the Moat House hotel, where I have a meeting booked with Sal, my mentor from the local government Improvement and Development Agency. We then head off together for an IDEA meeting, with a chance to sip a glass of wine and hear about local government improvement from Ed Davey MP and Kingston Council leader Derek Osbourne. Ed and I chat briefly afterwards about the East of England Regional Plan and proposals for extra homes round Harlow.

I book in to my hotel, and - resisting the temptations of long conversations into the night with party colleagues at the various hotel bars - head off for a meal and an early night. It must be a sign of age.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Full Council

This evening's Full Council meeting is (unusually) over before half past nine. There are four petitions, mostly about the council's recent budget which has already been agreed; four questions from the public, all from hackney carriage drivers about the cab ranks; and three rather odd questions from a Tory councillor.

There are also a few minor items, but the most important matter on the agenda is the council's response to the Regional Plan. Over the last few days all three group leaders and council officers have worked on a set of amendments to the original response from last Thursday's Policy and Resources Committee, which are therefore agreed by all sides.

Our response makes it clear that we support proposals for 10,000 additional homes to the north of Harlow, but that we don't see the proposed 2,700 extra homes to the south and west as offering any benefits to the town. We must also have the supporting infrastructure, like roads and schools, in place before - or at least at the same time as - homes are being built. We're doing our bit; now it's up to the Government to keep its side of the bargain.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Nuisance calls

It's often annoying enough having a train of thought interrupted by a phone call; but - as this afternoon - when the call is from a machine telling me I've won some dodgy lottery, or am entitled to a free holiday, it's even more irritating.

Increasingly political parties are using the telephone to call local voters - which is fine, if you're happy to accept the call. And if you're not, of course, there's the Telephone Preference Service. Registering with the TPS should end most nuisance calls, with a hefty fine threatened for callers who ring a TPS-registered number for marketing purposes.

However, it now appears that both Labour and Conservative parties are consistently ignoring the law, and ringing people who have registered with the Telephone Preference Service. Their excuse, apparently, is that political calls aren't 'marketing', despite the fact that the Information Commissioner has ruled on several occasions that they are.

I'd be furious if a political party ignored my TPS registration and called me in spite of my express wish not to be disturbed. So the new Stop Nuisance Election Calls web site couldn't have come at a better moment. If you're plagued by nuisance calls from Labour or Conservative phone banks when you've asked to be left in peace, why not report it and play your part in stamping out this inconsiderate practice?

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Yes or no

The flight from Jersey to London City this afternoon is uneventful, and I return home to vast quantities of email and some post. Included in my email inbox is a questionnaire for parliamentary candidates from an organisation I haven't heard of before, called Protecting Animals in Democracy. It consists of six questions, from hunting to battery farming to experimentation on primates (monkeys, not archbishops) - all reduced to simple Yes/No choices. If this election is like previous ones, I can expect another couple of dozen of these.
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